Michelle Slaybaugh: Reproductive Health Program Manager

While Michelle Slaybaugh was finishing a master’s degree in human development in 2013, she joined HCZ as a writing tutor. Off the bat, she saw children writing about their struggles with sexuality. It was a topic she knew well.

As the daughter of a lesbian, Slaybaugh was keenly aware of the shame that can come when you feel “different,” particularly around sexuality. “As much as [my mother] was closeted, I was closeted. That took a toll on me.”

In high school, she was sexually assaulted but felt unable to talk about it. “I didn’t have the language or the knowhow to get the help I needed to cope or heal from that experience. And that stayed with me because I felt I can’t be the only one.”

As she watched her students write about with things she’d learned to overcome, she felt a pull to work with them more directly to help them learn to do the same. She also understood that weight of compassion when it comes from someone students can relate to. An admirer of Dr. Ruth, she said, “I couldn’t find anyone that had these same conversations that looked like me.”

So, when Slaybaugh took a role as an advocate at HCZ’s Employment and Technology Center, she hung a gay pride flag next to her desk. Almost instantly, her caseload increased. “Students just felt safe being their most authentic self [with me]…They knew I wasn’t going to judge them.”

As fate would have it, plans developed within HCZ to create a reproductive and sexual health program. At last, she found her calling.

Today, Slaybaugh is part of HCZ’s Reproductive Health Team. “I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen,” she said. “The work will never be done, and you have to be kind of ok with that.”

The team works along the cradle to college pipeline, talking with parents at The Baby College to “normalize sexuality” and teaching a course on sexuality at the Promise Academy.

“[Students] have a lot of questions and are afraid to ask their parents,” she said. As part of the team’s effort to answer their questions, the team utilizes evidence-based curricula to create and curate content, then presents those lessons in class. The goal of the program is to engage students in both critical thinking and meaningful conversations about the decisions around sexuality that may arise in their lives.

Slaybaugh has seen parents and staff struggle with the appropriate techniques to engage children in conversations around sexuality. “Too many people tiptoe around the truth,” she said. Families have agreed with Slaybaugh on how critical these conversations are in helping young people make decisions. Many parents have told her they wished they would have had more conversations about sexuality when they were young.

To address these issues, the Reproductive Health Team provides staff and parent trainings to support these vital conversations. Slaybaugh believes that the primary providers of this information should be the parents and her team is here to help stakeholders feel more comfortable approaching these topics.

She sees it as part of her job to nudge people out of their comfort zones and into forthright conversations about sexuality. Over time, she assures, people will grow more comfortable, even empowered, leading these conversations with children; which will, in turn, help them do the same.

A former student recently told Slaybaugh: “‘I know I was knucklehead, but I just wanted to let you know you really helped me. You helped me understand some things’…That’s a glimmer of hope that the work we do matters.”

“I’m here to plant a seed, and hopefully it’s in fertile soil and it will take root,” Slaybaugh said. “It’s rewarding because that is what we are trying to do—build a better tomorrow for children.”